And All That Buzz

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon were special talents.  He is still the only artist to win the Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards all in one year (1973) and she was the first musical theatre actress to win four Tony Awards.

More to the point, it’s not every estranged married couple who kept working with each other years after their estrangement that has an eight part miniseries aired about their lives decades after their deaths.

When you watch Fosse/Verdon on FX, and everyone should, it’s difficult not to marvel at the sheer breadth of their work that will forever live on long after all of our deaths.  Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Damn Yankees, Chicago and All That Jazz, to drop a handful of legendary landmarks, are only a few highlights.

Both director/choreographer Fosse, and Broadway star, muse and behind-the-scenes facilitator Verdon did all kinds of work in a wide variety of genres.  But what unites them, more than anything, is their dedication to a disciplined, single-minded type of artistry that seems to have disappeared from the cultural zeitgeist these days.

Let’s not get it wrong; there are contemporary artists with the type of discipline that both Verdon and Fosse shared with us all through their lives.  But in both their cases they left far more than that, as the miniseries shows us.

OK yes, him (and he’s producing Fosse/Verdon… go figure)

In a sense, Fosse/Verdon, and their lives, gives us a timeless roadmap to the world pre #MeToo.  It was an existence where men consistently had the upper hand, the best opportunities AND usually got sole credit for ALL of the work even when that wasn’t necessarily the case.

When females actually managed to shine in their own spotlight far brighter than their male counterparts, it was in the midst of the age-old expectation that they would eventually dim their bulbs and take time off from doing their own thing in order to help the guy’s light to shine just as bright (and often brighter) on a project of their own without basking in the glory.

Who is holding up whom? (hint: It’s Gwen)

It was either that or turn the other cheek when the man brooded and strayed into the arms of many other women because, well, how could HE not when SHE wasn’t around.   For those women choosing to go solo, well they might make it alone for a bit but much sooner than later they’d mostly age out and be left alone – a fate few would be able to happily survive when left to their own devices in the real world.

We’ve come a long way from those times, though likely not as far as we think we have, one suspects.  As one watches Ms. Verdon endure her husband’s serial infidelities as she bails him out in too many ways to count on Cabaret, it occurs to us, hmmm, and why didn’t I ever know that, how come she never got any credit?   As she continues to serve as his creative sounding board on so many other future projects and successes (Note: And notably doesn’t on several of the failures) we become clear of the extent of their partnership, and just how much we DON’T know about who did what and just how much on any uber successful project of any artist or in any artistic collaboration.

Truly a singular sensation  #yesiknowthatfsromChorusLine

None of this is to take anything away from the miraculous creative vision and accomplishments a talent of the caliber of a Bob Fosse leaves us.  It’s one thing for a chorus boy/dancer to turn expert choreographer and then director of Broadway musicals.  It’s another to then become a sophisticated movie director who not only reinvented the onscreen musical with the movie Cabaret  (Note: Beating out Francis Coppola’s work on The Godfather to win the best director Oscar that year) but then two years later go on make the critically acclaimed, black and white non-musical, biopic of Lenny Bruce, Lenny, and use a non-linear narrative from which to tell it.

Not to mention the release of the autobiographical biopic All That Jazz five years later, a thoroughly original multi-Oscar nominated film success he co-wrote and directed that pretty much presaged the reasons behind his own death (Note: 12 years later) for all the world to see in glorious living color on movie screens all across the world.

JAZZ. HANDS.

Gwen Verdon was at Fosse’s side in various ways all through those artistic leaps and bounds and together they define a certain type of show business special that today too often feels sorely lacking.

Though the special is still there.  In fact, you see it every day, all around.  But the show business special – hmmm, that’s another story.

I, for one, am soooo tired of hearing young talent is not what it used to be, not special, not on the level of a Fosse or a Verdon anymore.

Well, of course ability like theirs was, indeed, rare, as were their complex sensibilities and intellect for telling a sophisticated yet human story.  But there are many people who are special in all kinds of different ways now, some of them even similar to a Fosse or a Verdon, whose work has little chance of gaining recognition.  Even when it does, it almost never gets that same kind of mainstream acceptance.

This EXACTLY

For one, there is not the mass attendance for a single form of media that we once had.  There was a time when Broadway theatre was IT and it tackled primarily new and exciting subjects, or at least fresh and entertaining/thought-provoking ones that often broke into the cultural zeitgeist.

Movies also told primarily real life human stories sans gaping plot holes, and for decades later it was not unusual for the biggest successes to say something about our lives as we knew them (Note: Or didn’t know them) that year.  Sure, there were disaster films, spectacles, horror, sci-fi and mindless comedies, but they were not the overwhelming majority of the work.  Yes, they had special effects but to have a really SPECIAL affect on the world you had to do a lot more than simply launch a starship into an infinite universe or create a colorful costumed villain whose one goal in life was an unmotivated ambition to blow up the universe.

I mean.. is it really even the end?

Right, right, we can hear the hiss and boos about this type of grousing from this computer screen already.  Well, no one is saying these shows and films shouldn’t exist.  Or that it’s a shame that television has expanded to the point where there is so much programming that no one show ever seems to be particularly special to most of us.

But the facts are that in an age when media is so diffuse and so plentiful there is almost no young person that can create the level and sheer amount of narrative work or performance with the same amount of staying power, depth of story and cultural intensity of a Fosse or a Verdon.  There isn’t the mass popular audience for that kind of sophisticated worldview, that type of show biz special.  It’s just not how the industry is set up these days.

We have international stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and, dare I say it, Jordan Peele??   But can they do the kind of deep or stylized work of Fosse or Verdon and break through? Schindler’s List was 25 years agoRaging Bull came out FOUR DECADES ago.

I’m…. I’m… OLD

Star Wars is not Cabaret, or even The Godfather – it can’t be and wasn’t meant to be.  Because the truth is there is no longer a mass-market avenue for the latter two projects.  But even fluffier Broadway shows that catapulted Ms. Verdon to stardom like Sweet Charity and Damn Yankees would doubtless be made into theatrical films in the 2000/10s.  Chicago, her final starring vehicle finally was, but decades after the original closed on Broadway and barely broke even.  It was only when a stripped down, TV/movie star driven revival was launched and kept afloat with a rotating name cast that Hollywood came calling and a film was produced that was safe enough to appeal to mass acceptance.

To look at that film in light of Fosse/Verdon one realizes that despite its Oscar win it’s the anti-Cabaret.  Rather than move forward the medium or the film’s story it merely waters it down with an eye towards the present as it pastiches various Fosse-like moves from the past.  And it was released a full 17 years agoGet Out, for all its cultural significance, (Note: And add on Us) is nowhere near the class of storytelling of any of Fosse’s best work, or that of a Scorsese or a Spielberg.  #PlotHoleCity

For these reasons and many more, one can’t help but mourn a bit for the past during the Fosse/Verdon miniseries.  It gives us so much show biz special in an age when it’s not the thought behind the show, but the delivery system by which it comes to us, that feels the most special to us.

Liza Minnelli – “Maybe This Time” (from Cabaret)

Dressing Up / Dressing Down

This week a photo popped up from the 1984 medical school yearbook page of Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam of two White classmates – one in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robes.

Gov. Northam initially said he was one of the young men in the picture, then quickly recanted and said he was mistaken. Then in a Saturday press conference he apologized anyway, noting the photo was offensive and racist but adding he himself had not looked at the yearbook in more than 30 years and that his memory was not entirely clear.

He then further added, or rather admitted, that the very same year – 1984 – he did indeed do blackface as Michael Jackson when he entered a dance contest in San Antonio.  The governor, a medical school graduate whose yearbook nickname was Coon Man, was 25 years old at the time.

So. Many. Questions.

There have been many calls for the governor to step down but as of now he refuses, stating: I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier for me to duck the responsibility to reconcile.  Coincidentally, his lieutenant governor, the person who would replace him, is Justin Fairfax, a Black man.  Both are Democrats.

Racist actions, racist jokes, and racism generally have no party affiliation, class distinction or sexual persuasion.  On the other hand, given Electoral College POTUS’s statement of “…you had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” after the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. eighteen months ago and the proliferation of hate crimes across the country since by various white people shouting or wearing hats trumpeting Trump’s Republican clarion call of Make America Great Again, it is hard not to see this as otherwise.

That boy’s smirk will forever be imprinted on my brain

This is particularly true when one watches news footage of the Charlottesville rally and takes in the anti-Semitic taunts (Jews will not replace us!), the proliferation of White males wielding torches, some in hoods and robes, and the death of one young woman there to protest these actions that was mowed down and murdered by a car driven through the crowd by one of those supremacists.

It almost makes you long for the days of Gov. Northam’s blackface.

Well, almost.

Definitely #TooSoon

Speaking of the mid-1980’s, here’s a story:

Around that time, I was invited to a Halloween party.  I was close to Gov. Northam’s age and as such was also a bit enamored with performers whose look and talents I admired but could never measure up to in real life.

As an out gay guy I longed to do something outrageous but I was not yet ready to dress up as Liza Minnelli.  Still, my sister had left her black sequined blazer in my hall closet and somehow I had asked her if it was okay to use it to play dress up.  Being who she was (and I was), the answer was an immediate and overenthusiastic YES!!!!!!

You know I would have slayed

But who to go as??  Sorry, Liza was (still) out because I was not THAT out.  Yet.  Though I’m not even sure I’m that out now, which I suppose is its own kind of self-loathing.  But I was determined to use the jacket because, well, it was so, so… faaaabulous.

Wait, I have it, I thought.  I’ll do….

BILLY PRESTON!!!

This was a very versatile jacket

Who?????, you millennials might say?  Well, Billy Preston was a big pop star in the seventies and eighties that toured with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Little Richard, and had a series of hit records that included Nothing From Nothing, Will It Go Round in Circles and a duet with Syreeta Wright called With You (I’m Born Again).

Better yet, he wore sparkly jackets as loud and even louder than the one in my closet, had great hair (as I did at the time) was about my height and even rumored to be…gay!!!!

It was a no brainer.  I was going to be Billy.

Um, this story is making us nervous, Chairy.

So being the gay that I am I did several pre-rehearsals of the outfit days before with the jacket.  Only to get just the right pants, shirt and glasses to go with it. (Ahem) I gotta admit, it was pretty good.  But something was not quite right.  Hmmm.  Well, maybe….the hair.

Billy Preston not only had good hair but was known for BIG hair.  I mean, HUUUUUUGE.  Like a ginormous Afro.  I felt a little uncomfortable but this was my one chance to be comfortable being a little flamboyant.  So I went to a costume store on Hollywood Boulevard and bought the biggest and cheapest Afro wig I could find.  When I got home and put it on I gotta admit (once again), it and I looked….fabulous.

OK well, not AS GOOD as Billy

Still, on the night of the party, and me being the insecure gay that I was, um, am, I  began thinking, I could do better.  Looking in the mirror I saw this was really good but in my heart of hearts I knew this COULD BE….great!!!!

There was one basic physical difference between Billy and I, aside from our fingers’ ability to glide across the piano keys from one end to the other and, who was I kidding, it had to do with skin color.  I bent down in the closet, below the full-length mirror, and opened a wooden box I kept inside with a carving of the insole of a shoe and spied a cornucopia of POLISH.  Black, brown, taupe, white…No, it absolutely had to be Black!!!

And then….I STOPPED.

Um, Chair (Note: Not my name at the time but I’ve changed it to protect the guilty), what the hell are you doing???  Are you kidding???  You can’t!!!!

AHHHHH!!

Still, I longed to go that extra yard, to make that difference.  To be fabulous.  And really, who would know?  Just a handful of people at that party.

As I reached for the polish it was like the ghosts of every Black performer and person I ever knew slapped my hand down and gave me the stink eye.

I don’t think so, they collectively warned.  You will NOT have that thrill.  You CANNOT use this to get yourself off for five minutes and call it a day.  You WILL not.

Oh thank god #relieved

And so, I quickly closed the box, shamed I had ever thought about it.  More than 30 years later I am ashamed, to this day.  Only now I am actually appalled, so appalled I hesitated to recount this story.

We are all flawed and we ALL have our prejudices.  Some are right out there, some are just below the surface and others are so deeply engrained that we still fail to this day, to even recognize them, much less cop to them.

But here’s the bottom line to the Northam argument:

You can have murderous thoughts – we all do from time to time in our lives.  But that doesn’t make you a murderer.

This is helping me process Zac Efron as Ted Bundy.. keep going

You can also have racist instincts, sexist desires or homophobic leanings, but this will not make you any of those isms.  Unless you ACT OUT on them.

And the good news is that even if you do ACT OUT there is hope.  You can admit what you’ve done, take your lumps and chastisement, work to do better, go out of your way to make amends, and then remind yourself many times over in perpetuity that you will always NEED to do better in this area, and then pass on that message to others.

What makes you guilty, and one of the ISMS, is when you mumble and gurgle and squirm, twisting yourself into an amnesiac pretzel, all in the name of self-preservation.

Bye Gurl. Bye Boi.

If we’re to survive as a country of honest to goodness humans (Note: And so far the jury is out), we all need to rip the Band-Aid off and take our medicine before the collective We can get any better.

This doesn’t make me of any one of the rest of us much better than the Electoral College POTUS or Gov. Northam.  Just more evolved and self-aware than we were when this all started.  Which is at least a start in itself.

Billy Preston – “Nothing from Nothing”

Last Licks

Screen shot 2014-03-02 at 11.35.11 AM

And now for the Chair’s comments on the “No Comments” categories…

I said I wouldn’t predict these but what good is a cheat sheet that doesn’t include the tie breaking spoilers?  (Note:  Do not bet on any one of these separately).

Foreign Language Film

Bellissimo!

The Great Beauty – If Fellini and Almodovar had an offspring director this would be the result.  It’s wonderful.  It should win and will win.

Live-Action Short Film:  Helium – Imagination figuratively, if not literally, saves a dying child.  It’s what the movies are all about.

Documentary Short Film

Lady Oscar

Lady Oscar

 The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life – The story of a 109 year old Holocaust survivor who was a virtuoso piano for her entire adult life and just died last week – when voting was still going on.  I rest my case.

Animated Short Film:  It will probably be Disney’s Get A Horse!, a clever melding of past and present Mickey Mouse cartoons.  My personal fave is Room on the Broom but the ballots are in and I’m not being counted.

Original Score

Play on Theodore

The hip choice

I mistakenly left this one out of the original cheat sheet and it’s no wonder – it’s one of the most difficult categories.  Let’s say the score of Her by William Butler and Owen Pallett.  Others are predicting Stephen Price for Gravity but instincts tell me there will be several below-the-line categories where voters draw a line in space.

Word on the Street:  Many sources predict Great Gatsby will take costume design.  Yes, the clothes were great but Catherine Martin has won before and will win again this year for production design.  Something tells me a majority will want to reward American Hustle here for fear it will receive nothing anywhere else.  So I’m staying with my previous prediction.

Just announced words on a press release

They don't call it the Gay Super Bowl for nothing!

They don’t call it the Gay Super Bowl for nothing!

Liza Minnelli and her sister Lorna Luft – the daughters of the late Judy Garland – will sing Over the Rainbow during the Wizard of Oz tribute along with Bette Midler and perhaps some others.   And yes – we are slowly painting the world pink.

For more Chairy Oscar coverage, follow my live tweets during the show @notesfromachair